This past week, I attended the Decolonizing Conference 2016 at the University of Toronto. While I love spending time in spaces such as this in which decolonization, race and anti-oppression are centered, they often remind me of the gaps in public education systems and the type of assumptions that leads us to all carry.
In the first session of the day that I attended the presenter at one point referred to herself as a “traditional Mohawk woman”. For me, someone familiar with the way many Indigenous folks in Canada will use the term “traditional”, I understood this to mean a woman who continues to practice ceremony and participate in traditional governing structures or community structures in some way. However come discussion period one audience member asked what was meant by this term and when given an answer along the same lines as my understanding as stated above, the audience member followed up with questions including “So is it like a class system then?”, “Does that mean Mohawks who live outside of the community aren’t traditional?” and “Does that mean you’re a better Mohawk?”.
I don’t blame the audience member for the questions that to me were cringe-worthy and distressing. Rather, I blame our education systems. Indigenous folks are often expected to explain our lives to others. We often don’t match the images held in the heads of non-Indigenous folks. This lack of agreement between the images our educations systems have taught folks and the images of real Indigenous folks often brings non-Indigenous people to believe they have a right to question the authenticity of Indigenous peoples.
Non-Indigenous folks have always felt they have a control or say over what a real “Indian” is. I believe this stems from the way non-Indigenous folks have been using Indigenous representations to tell the stories they wanted to about the New World since the arrival of European settlers. These narratives includes the “noble savage” or the disappearing Indian narratives. And today, because accurate and current representations are so rarely present in education and media, when folks are presented with an Indigenous person who does not meet their expectations, they don’t believe it because it is not what they were taught to expect.
This disbelief of the authenticity of Indigenous folks can lead to erasure of the lived experiences of Indigenous folks and beliefs that because Indigenous people have changed with time, just as any group has, that they no longer have a claim to Indigeneity.
However, I want to take the time to remind Indigenous folks that traditional or not, white-passing or not, on-reserve or not, you are an authentic Indigenous person. You existing and claiming your rights and heritage is authentic. You speaking out against colonialism and racism is authentic. You can choose to live your life in different ways and be influenced in different ways by the changing world we live in, but you will always be authentic.